Motivated Reasoning

Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

Mark 9:23-24 KJV

The father in this passage has clear motivation to believe: He wants his son healed. So he asks for help believing. Christians also have motivation to believe: In most versions of Christianity, their salvation depends upon their belief. For atheists, the incentives run in the opposite direction. Having rejected belief, we face the potentially unsettling prospect of eternal damnation if our unbelief is wrongheaded. For our psychological comfort, we are better off if we are confident in our non-belief than if we are uncertain.

Motivated reasoning occurs when we put our thumb on the evidentiary scale, whether consciously or unconsciously, to lead us to the conclusion we want to arrive at. This passage describes it nicely:

Motivated reasoning is our tendency to use reasoning not to discover what’s really true but to justify—both to ourselves and to others—the conclusion we prefer, or have already made. 

It’s a pretty universal human tendency. If you think you don’t engage in it, that’s probably because you want to think you don’t engage in it. Unless you’ve never heard of it before, in which case I give you a pass for as long as it takes you to think it through, do a little research, and weigh the evidence.

Motivated reasoning is by definition not a great way to arrive at objective truth. 

There are things I like about Christianity–in particular, the emphasis on forgiveness and loving one’s neighbor. But one thing I dislike about Christianity is that its emphasis on belief actively encourages motivated reasoning. It’s normal to doubt, we are told, but we must keep trying to believe. Your eternal soul depends on it.

By encouraging motivated reasoning, this tenet of Christianity leads people away from truth. That, in my opinion, is a recipe for trouble. 


  1. Is this a fair criticism of Christianity?
  2. In what ways, if any, do you find yourself engaging in motivated reasoning?
  3. How, if at all, do you try to counteract it?